Russia Forces Out One of Its Best Minds

Putin's crackdown reaches into the establishment. Is anyone safe?


The news that Sergei Guriev has been forced to leave Russia under legal pressure is truly shocking because he is not a member of the opposition but an eminent representative of the liberal wing of the establishment. If Guriev is compelled to leave the country, any Russian citizen can face that fate.

Guriev, 41, is a truly outstanding individual. He was trained as an economist at MIT and Princeton and has an impressive record of academic publications in the foremost international journals, with particular interest in the role of oligarchs and the economics of happiness. At the tender age of 32, he became the president of the New Economic School (NES), a distinguished graduate program in Moscow, which he has developed into the best economics education not only in Russia, but on the European continent.

Guriev, whom I have known for two decades, is one of the greatest Russian networkers and public performers. Quickly and with a good sense of humor, he seizes the essence of a subject and explains it to any audience technically or plainly, in an academic journal or in a newspaper article, at venues like the World Economic Forum and the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russia’s premier such event.

He is everybody’s favorite Russian economist. The Peterson Institute for International Economics, where I work, has happily pursued its Russia Balance Sheet project with him, which among other things resulted in the book Russia after the Global Economic Crisis. Guriev is a popular speaker everywhere, in Moscow as well as in Washington. He has been a member of at least five Russian corporate boards, including state-dominated Sberbank. What surprised those of us who knew him was how he could manage it all — and yet still respond to all emails instantly, even in the wee hours of the morning. As his colleague, he always has been kind and honest, seemingly never making an enemy.

Until now, that is. How could such a nice guy get into trouble? The irony is that he has not been politically active. On the contrary, he has been the consummate insider, a member of all kinds of government economic councils. Commenting on his departure this week, Minister of Open Government Mikhail Abyzov even said that he and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev would continue to keep in touch with Guriev online. The radical opposition has complained that Guriev has stayed a member of the establishment, although he has never hidden his liberal views, being a regular columnist in the quality newspaper Vedomosti.

One of the problems is apparently that he has been too close to Medvedev, while Russia’s authoritarian leader is President Vladimir Putin. The other, perhaps more important accusation against Guriev is that he has maintained close personal ties to the leading anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny, who is likely on his way to prison for no crime other than opposing Putin and exposing official corruption. Most absurdly, Guriev is being held responsible for NES having received funds from Yukos, the oil company run by jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, before Guriev became its president.

Last December, NES celebrated its 20th anniversary with an excellent conference in Moscow. Prominent speakers were First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, one of the first graduates of NES. Yet, the sponsors were mainly foreign companies and private Russian individuals. I asked Sergei whether NES would suffer from the law on foreign agents, but he responded that education institutions were excluded. Officially, he was right, but what is in the law itself doesn’t always matter in Russia today, as Guriev’s departure shows.

Sergei Guriev’s forced departure is a devastating blow to civil society and freedom in Russia. It shows how sharply freedom of expression has been restricted. The authorities have made plain their disrespect for education and research of the highest quality. Guriev’s exit is likely to be followed by a reinforced flow of young talented Russians out of the country, and the Kremlin can forget about quality education because it cannot thrive under such restrictive conditions.

Anders Åslund is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and worked as an economic advisor to the Russian government from 1991 to 1994.